After finishing our salt flats tour we got straight on the bus to Potosi which was not the easiest bus trip due to our salty and dishevelled appearance. We had booked into the Hostal Eucalyptus and received a warm welcome despite pulling up in our salt-covered walking gear.
Potosi is a mining town, but once it was THE mining town of Latin America. The Cerro Rico stands above the city was discovered to contain rich veins of silver by a llama shepherd. The Spanish quickly discovered this and put the local people to work retrieving, smelting and minting the silver into hard currency throughout their Empire.
We visited the Casa de la Moneda, which was the second mint built by the Spanish in 1773, These were some of the first machines used to roll ingots of silver into the correct depth for stamping out into coins. The oak was imported from Europe and three sets of the machines were on display, each with four sections that rolled the ingots out bit by bit. These early machines were driven by mules that did two hour shifts on the level below.
The museum also had an impressive display showing the array of geological specimens that have been unearthed in and around the Potosi mine system. This collection was housed in one of the smelting houses at the back of the Casa. These must have been dangerous and unpleasant places to work, hot and full of poisonous gases.
As part of its central position in the history of the world economy, Potosi lays claim to the birth of the $ symbol. The old mint stamp of potosi was a graphic amalgam of the letters, "P, T, S and I." The P and T were dropped to leave an interlocking S and I, hence the modern dollar symbol, $. Pretty cool eh?
We went up the Torre de Compania de Jesus after lunch and were greeted by wind, rain and cloud. But the views across the city were moody and evocative.
The central Cathedral on Plaza de la 10 Noviembre was closed from the front, like many of the churches here in Bolivia, which is very different from Europe as well as Chile and Argentina. We managed to find a route in through an unimpressive looking back door.
The Cathedral was airy and minimal and seemed to be in regular use. The decoration at high level avoided the trap of overt ostentatiousness which has put me off most of the cathedrals we have visited.
A quick run up the bell tower gave us a second perspective to the city's roofscape, but by this stage the weather had really closed in. Potosi is 4100m above sea level, making this little trip up the tower and breathless experience for more than one reason.
Only here for one day, we didn't have time to take a mine tour, but neither of us were too concerned about this as the conditions are described as hot, cramped and toxic. Not the sort of thing you would pay money for really. Since the Spanish boom-years, there is now very little silver left in the mountain, and the miners have to excavate more dangerously to extract lesser metals such as tin. There is no engineer present or a central strategy for the extraction of metals here, so there is a wide belief that the mountain will one day collapse in on itself due to the unplanned tunnelling taking place.
Thanks Potosi, a short and sweet visit but we learnt a lot. Our day finished with a trip to the bus terminal and a ride to Sucre on a bus with faulty air brakes. Yay!